By Preston Wilder
It’s a good week for unhappy families at the cinema. No Escape tells of the Dwyers, caught up in an Asian revolution – but we also have the Fleeges in Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, the most dim-witted, or possibly good-natured (but probably just dim-witted) family in the annals of such things. Their new house turns out to be haunted, their child is possessed, people from the past literally watch them through some kind of video portal, but it makes no difference. The Fleeges aren’t bothered.
“For the first time, you will see the activity,” runs the tag-line for this fifth or sixth instalment (last year’s Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones wasn’t ‘officially’ part of the franchise) – a strange selling-point, since these films have always thrived on withholding. It’s not like we never saw the “activity” before – but it was usually a quick whooshing movement or scary shadow, coming after several minutes of slowly-building anticipation; that’s the whole Paranormal m.o. Things must be getting pretty desperate if producers feel the series needs to be tarted up with bug-eyed spooks and demonic close-ups.
Things are indeed pretty desperate – but in fact the tag-line lies, since Ghost Dimension isn’t any more explicit than its predecessors. The major change is the aforementioned video portal, activated through an old-school camcorder and a pile of VHS tapes from the 80s – “That must be the people who used to live here” – the camera picking up ectoplasmic material so it looks like it’s filming underwater (I guess in that sense we do “see the activity”, but it’s still pretty vague). At one point, paterfamilias Ryan Fleege (Chris J. Murray) sets up the camcorder next to his daughter’s bed overnight, with another camera set up as a control. The second camera shows nothing, just the sleeping girl – but the old 80s camera shows a kind of swirling spectral fountain that appears next to her bed, remains there for hours, and lashes out invisibly at Mrs. Fleege when she comes in to check.
This is not the climax of the movie; it takes place about halfway through, not long after little Leila starts talking to an invisible friend named Toby. So, to sum up, Mr. Fleege now has video footage of a “big dark shape”, as he puts it, lurking next to his daughter’s bed – and Mrs. Fleege can presumably confirm that something lashed out at her as she entered the room. Right? Well, maybe – but in fact we’ll never know, because Ryan never shows her the tape. Not because they’re estranged, or because the marriage is unhappy (pro tip: horror films in general are more effective when they focus on dysfunctional families rather than happy ones), he just doesn’t think it’s important. Nor does he even mention it. Nor does he say ‘Let’s get out of this house’. He, like the audience, has “seen the activity” – and he’s not too bothered.
Blithe unconcern in the face of horrific evidence seems to be a Fleege thing in general. Little Leila, now full-on possessed, prowls around at night, and tries to burn the family Bible. She seems “different”, notes her mother. She probably didn’t even know what that book was, shrugs her aunt. Leila keeps talking of Toby – and Toby is also the figure who bewitched the little girls in the 80s videos. Coincidence? “She probably watched the tape,” offers Ryan’s idiot brother. (How could she watch the tape? Does she even know what a VCR is?) Then the girls in the tapes start commenting directly on the present-day action – Leila sneezes and the girl from 30 years ago says “Bless you” – at which point the whole film tips over into the idiotic. “It’s not a normal home video,” says Ryan, finally starting to catch on.
This is a terrible movie, aimed at franchise fans who just want their annual fix and don’t mind shoddiness and blatant ridiculousness (in fact, they probably welcome it). The Fleeges remain quite blasé, even when Leila starts saying “Bloody Mary” backwards and cries that Toby’s “going to take me away” (get her out of the house, you nitwits!). Late in the day, a priest appears, claiming that the demon will follow them if they try to leave the house – a trump card that horror films have been playing for a while now (it first appeared in Insidious) though it seems unconvincing here, since the plot is so tied to the house and the videos; it’s really just a way of prolonging the movie past the point where even the Fleeges might start to think about making a getaway. We don’t need an exorcism here, intones this priest, looking around solemnly: “We need … an extermination!”. The same could be said of this running-on-empty franchise.
DIRECTED BY Gregory Plotkin
STARRING Chris J. Murray, Brit Shaw, Ivy George
US 2015 88 mins